Vol I No. 7

A Sermon for Palm Sunday

by William J. Martin

I am innocent of the blood of this just person: see you to it.

(St. Matthew 27. 24)

We in the Christian church are called to silence and contemplation during Holy Week. The silence is our response to the Passion and Crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God. Holy Week has been set aside from the time of early Church ponder our Lord’s suffering in silence. If we approach this time with a diligent and determined concentration, we will, no doubt, find that it will simultaneously assault and confound our human reason, and tear and wrench the human heart from the objects of its habitual and chronic, lesser loves. Should we persevere in faith with our eyes on Jesus Christ, God’s great unseen eternal design will begin to be enunciated, communicated, and expressed to our souls through the suffering and Passion of the Word made flesh.

And yet the task that we set before ourselves today seems so daunting. No sooner have I said that we must be still and silent, than we are overwhelmed and swept up in the tumultuous commotion and confusion that surrounds the trial of Jesus Christ. Pontius Pilate, the Prefect or Roman Governor of Judaea, is trying to superimpose order and discipline on chaos and confusion, on what he thinks is merely a small-town problem whose character and nature can be contained and, so he hopes, will never spread. He seems a reasonable and just enough man, who is neither intrigued nor impressed by the religion of the local Jews. If anything, he is perturbed and bothered that a matter of local religious color and hue should disrupt the Pax Romana –the Roman Peace, which he is paid to maintain in this tiny Roman province. He is certainly unimpressed and even agitated that the rag-tag Jewish Temple guards have harassed, rustled, and bound this Jesus of Nazareth in clear defiance of the Roman Legion’s prerogative and commission to police the land. But he cannot ignore this disturbance because he must uphold the Roman Peace. The Jewish temple priests and chief elders have roused and excited the plebs, or the mob of unemployed and disgruntled men who had hailed Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem –Hosanna to the Son of David, Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord…., pinning their hopes on Him as the great liberator and freedom fighter who would break the yoke of Roman oppression. Finding that He was not prepared to use any of those miraculous powers –that they had seen in His healing of the diseased, to call down God’s wrath on the Romans, they had turned on Him. Pilate is thus justifiably nervous.

So, in the interest of Roman Law, Pilate questions this Jesus who now stands before him. Art thou the king of the Jews? (St. Matthew xxvii. 11) Jesus answers, Thou sayest, or So you say. The Jews accuse him of many things, and Jesus remains silent. Pilate asks again, Hearest not how many things they witness against thee? (Ibid, 13) Jesus’ silence confounds and unsettles Pilate, so that the governor marveled greatly.  (Ibid, 13, 14) But Pilate is pressured on another front to maintain the Pax Romana. To placate the plebs, it was his custom, yearly on the Feast of the Passover, to pardon and liberate one prisoner. There was a notorious criminal in custody that year, one Barabbas, whose name means, ironically enough, son of the Father. Pilate knew that out of envy and malice the chief priests and elders had delivered Jesus to him, and also guesses that they have no interest in the release of Barabbas, since radical insurrectionists threatened their own pride of place as much as the peace of Caesar’s Empire. Pilate thinks that he might pit the chief priests and scribes against the mob, and thus throw the problem back to both groups of agitators. So he asks the Jews, Whom will ye that I release unto you? Barabbas, or Jesus which is called Christ? (Ibid, 17) Having asked the question, he sits down on the judgment seat. No sooner has he done this, than matters become more complicated by a message that he receives from his wife, Claudia Procula. Do not meddle with this innocent man; I dreamed today that I suffered much on his account. (R. Knox, Ibid, 19) Romano Guardini tells us that, Pilate is skeptical but sensitive –possibly also superstitious. He feels the mystery, fears supernatural power, and would like to free [Jesus]. (The Lord, p. 392) But the chief priests and elders have stirred the mob to demand Barabas’ release and Jesus’ death. Pilate’s conscience is nevertheless disturbed, and so asks, Why, what evil hath [this Jesus] done? (St. Matthew 27. Crucify him, they cry with vehemence. And so Pilate caves and surrenders to their wish. Then he took water and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this just person: see you to it. (St. Matthew 27. 24) The Roman Peace is maintained for a season. The Jews take responsibility: His blood be on us, an on our children. (St. Matthew 27. 25)

Now I have said that we must be still and silent this coming week in order to be touched and moved by the Word of God in heart of Jesus. But what should touch and move us most is Jesus’ relative silence through His suffering and death. Now, you say, but of course He was relatively silent; He was having the life beaten and kicked out of Him. And this is true enough. Pilate’s soldiers and the wrath-riddled, vengeful, and envious Jews were determined to silence this Jesus of Nazareth forever. Extreme torture is always useful in such an endeavor. But Jesus will not die the tragic hero of an ancient epic. His silence is necessary for our progressive introduction to the workings of His innermost being. Again, as Romano Guardini says, It is frightening to witness this hate-torn world suddenly united for one brief hour, against Jesus. And what does he do? Every trial is in reality a struggle –but not this one. Jesus refuses to fight. He proves nothing. He denies nothing. He attacks nothing. Instead, he stands by and lets events run their course –more, at the proper moment he says precisely what is necessary for his conviction. His words and attitude have nothing to do with the logic or demands of a defense. The source lies elsewhere. The accused makes no attempt to hinder what is to come; but his silence is neither that of weakness nor of desperation. It is divine reality; full, holy consciousness of the approaching hour; perfect readiness. His silence brings into being what is to be. (Ibid, 395)  And  with St. Paul, we remember that though he was in the form of God, he did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. (Phil. 2. 6-8) Jesus Christ silences His Divinity for a season that through His human nature He might bear the burden of sinful man’s condition. His Divine Nature must remain silent as the Man obeys His God inwardly and spiritually to the end. And He must now be left alone with His Father, as He offers his suffering and death as a pure and spotless sacrifice, an act of pure kindness and generosity that will reveal for what and for whom He has come into the world. So, to the end, He does not count His Divine Nature a thing to pressed and forced upon an unwilling people. Rather He considers His Divine Nature a thing to be discovered first through silent contemplation and then through that faith that will follow Him into death and beyond. In fact, He will un-self Himself so completely so as to become the love of God and the same love for all men.

So what I hope we shall see and hear in our stillness and silence this week is the relatively silent Word of God still hard at work in the suffering and dying Jesus. Jesus refuses to allow any of what he must endure to be anything other than the Father’s will. And the Father’s will is always and ever good. So this labor of working God’s will out and into the hearts of men is what Jesus must do now, as He did before. That the conditions seem less favorable is no excuse for Jesus to cease from the Father’s labor. His own human suffering will not stop Him. His agony, torture, and unspeakable pain of body, soul, and spirit must not interrupt the work of salvation. Christ as much as says, You have stripped, bound, whipped, and tortured me. You have nailed my hands and feet to the tree. You continue to tempt, taunt, and provoke me. And do you think that I am any less free to do the will of my Father who sent me? I made this body that I inhabit, and I made yours too. Do you think that my suffering and your rejection of God will silence my work as God’s Word and Love? I tell you, that even in the midst of this my earthly end, I am still loving and forgiving. Through all of this suffering and death that you have demanded of me, still I desire you. In fact, in the midst of this suffering and death, caused by your sin, I am making all things new. This suffering and death are necessary and good, for through them alone will you find your salvation. This is the first day of the new creation I was born to make. On this day I have accepted your judgment of God’s Word and Desire for man in the flesh that I AM. You can kill my body, and my love is already set on making a new one, not only for me, but also for you, because I forgive you and want you.

Dear friends, this day let us begin to follow the Word of God made flesh into His suffering and death. In stillness and silence let us see how this Word of God can still be heard as the one who hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows…[who] was wounded for our transgressions…[and]bruised for our iniquities: [through whose] stripes we are healed. (Is. liii. 4,5) Let us see and hear how this Jesus of Nazareth will endure man’s evil and make it good. Let us see and hear that, from His heart to ours, God’s Word always shares His living love with us. He shares it with us as He dies for us on His Cross, and He will share it with us as He rises for us into new life. He does, after all, desire to take us with Him into that new life that He was always dying to make and create. Amen.